Jefferson Thomas was 15 years-old when he started at Little Rock Central High School. He volunteered to attend the previously all-white school because he knew that it offered better educational opportunities than the African American school he previously attended. He and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were initially prevented from attending Central High because angry mobs and the Arkansas National Guard denied them entry to the school because they were African American. After several weeks, the students were eventually able to attend because federal troops were sent in to protect them.
Thomas and the other students faced constant harassment and violence from their white classmates. The white students always stared at Thomas, but he claimed “That’s natural that somebody is going to stare...It’s like kids going to a circus for the first time and seeing an elephant there. They stare” (Thomas). Aside from being stared at, Thomas was subjected to far worse abuse. One time, a white student punched him from behind, knocking him out. He was so fearful for his safety that every day when school ended, he ran home rather than walked. He also needed protection so one of his older brothers would wait for him when school got out, holding a tire iron in case he needed to defend his brother. Thomas endured constantly feeling unsafe because “If one of us had quit, that would have shown a weakness in our unity” (Thomas).
Thomas was one of the three members of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from Central High School. After graduating, he began college at Wayne State University, then transferred to Los Angeles State College, where he was president of the Associated Engineers and he was involved in student government. He then went on to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. After serving, he returned to Los Angeles State College, where he earned a degree in Business Administration. Thomas worked as an accountant for the remainder of his career and eventually worked for the Department of Defense.
Thomas has been recognized for his commitment to racial equality. He received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1958. He also earned the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that can be given to a civilian, from President Clinton in 1999. Thomas was also presented with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ohio Dominican University.
Jefferson Thomas died from pancreatic cancer on September 5, 2010. He was the first member of the Little Rock Nine to pass away. The other members of the group remember Thomas for his sense of humor. The country remembers him as an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. President Obama stated “Mr. Thomas was just a teenager when he became one of the first African-American students to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. Yet even at such a young age, he had the courage to risk his own safety, to defy a governor and a mob, and to walk proudly into that school even though it would have been far easier to give up and turn back” (Obama).
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com
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